Brandon’s assistant Karen here.
Brandon has asked me to judge the applications for his English 318r class and choose the 15 writers who will be in his small group workshops. This year I will only be considering the first 65 applications I receive. Based on the last few years, I will probably get that many in the first two or three days, so you should make sure you are ready to hit send on the 23rd.
If you’re looking for hints about how to put together an application that will impress me, you can check out this FAQ article. TLDR: Treat this application as if you are submitting your novel to an editor for publication. The most important hint is to follow the directions EXACTLY. I will not even look at your writing sample if you don’t have both files attached to your email with the EXACT names and formats I request.
Today I’m going to put the nuts and bolts aside and talk about the writing samples.
Judging the writing samples is a tough job. If you read science fiction or fantasy, you may be familiar with the steep learning curve at the start of a new book. In other genres, you have to learn the names of the characters, and figure out where and when the novel is set. The names will probably be ones you’ve heard before, and so are easy to pronounce in your head. The setting is probably also familiar: America in the 1980s, or France during World War II for instance. Even if you didn’t live in those times and places, you probably have a lot of background knowledge, so when the Nazis show up, you don’t have to be told the complete history of the last hundred years to know that they’re the bad guys.
In a fantasy novel, the names are often not Bob or Sue. They might be easy or hard (or impossible) to pronounce. You might spend the first part of the book thinking of someone as simply that guy whose name starts with Jq’. The setting is probably also not one you’re familiar with. It might be a fairly simple setting like faux medieval Europe, though the kingdoms and politics are not ours, or it could be set on the surface of a neutron star with characters that are essentially very smart amoebas. Then there’s the magic system. Is it something anybody can use? What kind of powers are available? What does it cost to cast spells? Does our main character even know that magic exists? You can see that in order to enjoy a fantasy novel, you have to figure out the answers to all of these questions fairly quickly.
Now imagine that as soon as you start to get your bearings, the first chapter ends and you need to put the book down and start over again with a new book, new setting, new characters, new historical backstory, new magic system, etc. And in twenty minutes or so, you get to do it again, and again, and again. By the time I’ve finished a day of reading, my brain is mush, and after a couple of days, I can’t even remember what any given book is about, let alone whether it’s any good.
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering what you have to do in order to make your sample stick out in my head as a good one while I’m wading through the pile of slush. When I said that you should treat this application as if you were submitting your novel to an editor for publication, I meant that literally. This is how it works in the field of professional publishing.
The key, other than just writing really well, is to not turn me off. Knowing that I have a limited amount of mental energy to devote to this task, I’m not going to waste my time on something that I know will not make the cut. You have two, maybe three pages to convince me that I ought to keep reading. Use them well. Here are some things that are nearly always going to get your story rejected.
- Grammar problems – I will stop reading after about the third mistake. There’s no excuse for this. If you aren’t confident about your ability to do a thorough proofread, have someone you trust help you.
- Boring start – I get that you want to show how exciting it is for your character to leave their life behind and answer the call to adventure, but I don’t want to read about a day spent twiddling their thumbs at school.
- Amateur pitfalls – Don’t have your character look in the mirror so that you can have an excuse to describe them. Don’t have a maid and butler scene where people tell each other things they both know in order to explain them to the reader.
- Purple prose – If the gentle breeze kisses the raven locks on the knight’s noble brow as she gazes forlornly at the twisting smoke emerging from the crimson embers of her dying campfire, I’m going to put the book down in less than a page. You don’t need an adjective every other word, and I shouldn’t feel like you’re writing with a thesaurus in your hand.
- White room – You do have to have some description. I need to be able to tell whether your characters are in a forest or a basement as they discuss their plans.
People have asked me, “If you see this many errors in my writing, doesn’t that mean that I’m the one who most needs to be accepted into this class?” The answer is no. This is advice you can get from books or the lecture portion of the class. Brandon’s time is much better spent helping excellent authors take their writing to the next level, and we have enough of those apply that the fifteen slots I have really ought to go to them.
I don’t want this to stop anyone from applying. I hope that people will read this advice and use it to make sure that they’re sending me their very best work. I also want to stress that I only have fifteen slots. I have to reject good stories every year, and it breaks my heart to send out the letters to the candidates who weren’t accepted. Brandon wishes that he could help every one of you, but if you want the next Stormlight book to come out sometime in the next ten years, he’s got to ration his time.
Good luck, and good writing,